Dry, itchy eyes may be a sign of chronic dry eye syndrome

If you watch any television you’ve seen the commercials about dry eye syndrome. One features a woman who is actually an eye doctor (yes, I looked her up) and the other stars famous actress Jennifer Aniston. Out of curiosity, and the need for a subject this week, I did a search about chronic dry eye syndrome.

The National Eye Institute says when your eyes don’t make tears properly or if the tears aren’t the correct consistency and evaporate too quickly, the result is dry eye syndrome.

“In addition, inflammation of the surface of the eye may occur along with dry eye. If left untreated, this condition can lead to pain, ulcers, or scars on the cornea, and some loss of vision. However, permanent loss of vision from dry eye is uncommon,” NEI says.

We all should know that tears aren’t just for shedding when we’re sad. Our eyes make tears to bathe our corneas every time we blink. It’s an important process for keeping germs, dust and other harmful materials out of our eyes.

Your cornea is the clear, dome-shaped outer surface that covers the eye in front of the iris, you know, the colored part of your eye. It is a “highly organized, clear structure made up of a group of cells and proteins precisely arranged in layers, but it has no blood vessels to nourish or protect it against infection. Instead, it receives its nourishment from the tears and the watery fluid (aqueous humor) that fills the chamber behind it,” NEI explains.

The American Association of Ophthalmology tells us that tears are important to our vision because the tear film keeps the eye’s surface smooth and clear. The tear film is made up of three layers and each serves a purpose.

The oily layer is the outside of the tear film and is made in the eye’s meibomian glands. “It makes the tear surface smooth and keeps tears from drying up too quickly,” AAO explains. “The watery layer is in the middle. It comes from the lacrimal glands in the eyelids. This layer cleans the eye, washing away particles that do not belong in the eye.”

The mucus (inner) layer is made in the conjunctiva. “This helps spread the watery layer over the eye’s surface keeping it moist. Without mucus, tears would not stick to the eye. This is the clear tissue covering the white of your eye and inside your eyelids,” AAO says.

If you suffer from any of the following symptoms the NEI recommends you see an eye care professional to determine if the cause is an underlying illness: a stinging or burning in the eye; a sandy or gritty feeling as if there’s something in there when you know there isn’t; episodes of excess tears following very dry eye periods; a stringy discharge from the eye; pain and redness of the eye and/or episodes of blurred vision.

Other symptoms include: heavy eyelids, inability to cry when emotionally stressed; discomfort when wearing contact lenses; decreased tolerance of reading, working on the computer, or any activity that requires sustained visual attention, and eye fatigue.

Post-menopausal women and those who prematurely go through menopause are more likely than men to get dry eye syndrome, but it can affect people at any age and of any gender although you’re at higher risk the older you get.

The list of causes on NEI’s website is lengthy. To name a mere few are medications such as diuretics, beta-blockers, birth control pills and antihistamines; having an auto-immune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis; long-term contact lens wear; being exposed to smoke or living in a very dry climate; cosmetic surgery, and pregnancy.

All the websites I looked at recommend that sufferers start by using artificial tears. You can buy them over-the-counter and I suggest you look for the ones that contain no preservatives. NEI recommends an increase in omega-3 fatty acids to decrease irritation. Your doctor can explain other treatment options. He or she just might prescribe one of those medications as seen on TV!

Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at 264-4029 or kathyleehubbard@yahoo.com.